Religion and politics: Canadian diversity makes for better policy-making

David Kilgour
David vs. David
PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 11: Kenza Drider addresses the media as she demonstrates against the ban of the 'niqab' or full-face veil in public places, outside Notre-Dame cathedral on April 11, 2011 in Paris, France. An official ban on wearing the niqab or burka came into effect in France from first thing this morning with offenders facing a fine of EUR 150. Police have stated they will be enforcing the ban 'extremely cautiously'. Police have been issued with warnings not to arrest women in the vicinity if mosques and they have also been banned from "citizen de-veilings". (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

In his 2011 book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, quotes an anonymous Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “In the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. The Christian moral foundation of social and and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Many other spiritual communities in Canada and beyond have also had major roles, but the focus here will be on Christianity, partly because according to the census a decade ago fully seven out of ten Canadians were identified as Catholic (about 13 million) or Protestant (8.7 million). Another 784,000 self-identified simply as
"Christian."

There have been some major conflicts between our two largest faith communities. One was the outrageous Manitoba School Act of 1890, which in effect seized Catholic schools in the province without compensation and handed them over to public school boards dominated then by mostly new Protestant majorities. In recent decades, reason and good will have generally prevailed among all faith communities, partly because of hard and careful work by inter-faith groups across the country.

Christianity is increasing with phenomenal speed in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, it is growing at an astounding 8.4 million persons a year across the continent of Africa. Philip Jenkins in his book on global Christianity predicts that by 2025, fifty percent of Christians will be in Africa and Latin America.

Christianity is also growing rapidly in China despite numerous obstacles created by the party-state. According to Ferguson, separate surveys by China Partner and East China Normal University in Shanghai say there are today about 40 million Protestants across the country, compared with only about half a million in 1949. He adds, “Some estimates put the maximum even higher at 75 0r 110 million. Include 29 million Catholics and there could be as many as 130 million Christians in China.”

For reasons which usually relate to national demographics, harassment and persecution of Christians are also escalating. A 2011 Pew Forum study estimated that this is now happening in a majority of the world’s independent nations. One estimate is that about 105,000 Christians are murdered annually because of their faith. This means that one Christian is killed every five minutes somewhere.

Ending it and the persecution of every other religious community is proving difficult. Miroslav Volf of Croatia concludes in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, “There can be no peace among nations without peace among among religions. Since religious peace can be established only through religious dialogue … reconciliation between peoples depends on the success of the inter-religious dialogue. For reconciliation to take place, the inscriptions of hatred must be carefully erased and the threads of violence gently removed.”

Where does this mix at home and abroad leave religion and politics domestically today in Canada? Permit me as someone who represented constituents of many faiths and none during almost 27 years in the House of Commons to make two points:

First, most voters — at least those in southeastern Edmonton before 2006 — appeared to have no problem with their MP being a person with a religious affiliation, provided they do not impose it on others. This is doubtless why the two most difficult issues I faced in trying to be a good representative for all were abortion and same-sex marriage.

Second, Canadians are diverse in their views, including their religious ones, but a great many maintain strong spiritual faiths.

That diversity equates to a multitude of voices in policy-making, which is an important quality to Canadian governance.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.